Athletics

Where A’s position battles stood before spring training was canceled

Where A’s position battles stood before spring training was canceled

Major League Baseball, along with the rest of the sports world, faces an unprecedented time right now.

The original Opening Day start at the end of March had been pushed back two weeks, and then another extension into May. That’s the earliest the regular season could begin.

Spring training games were also canceled, and as a result, we’re left waiting.

For now, we can revisit some of the position battles that were taking place down in Arizona for the A’s. The two main ones being second base and catcher.

Catcher

Sean Murphy
Austin Allen
Jonah Heim

At the catcher spot, for now, Sean Murphy looks to be the starter behind the plate.

Last season, he made his MLB debut and in 20 games batted .245/.333/.566 with 13 hits and four home runs. His spring training debut took a while as the team wanted to ease him in coming off of left knee surgery in October.

When he did make his Cactus League debut, it appeared to be worth the wait.

Yes, I know -- these are spring numbers, but he was hitting .375 in 10 plate appearances.

A’s manager Bob Melvin views the catcher position as an important one. 

He’s a former big-league catcher himself so he appreciates it. Before he was able to see Austin Allen -- who was acquired in the Jurickson Profar trade -- he knew Allen could hit.

He took advantage of the Pacific Coast League before his time in San Diego, but finished his 2019 big-league campaign with a .215/.282/.559 line. He also had a splendid spring and in 15 Cactus League games hit .406 with two homers and 10 RBI. Plus, Baseball Reference projects him to do very well this season.

BoMel specifically told NBC Sports California about Jonah Heim’s Triple-A numbers. He, too, swung the bat well in the PCL after a Double-A promotion. Across two teams in 2019, he hit for a .310 average and .863 OPS. He played in 12 games during the spring and fared well.

Needless to say, the catching position sits rather pretty for the moment.

There were talks of the A's bringing in a veteran behind the plate, but that doesn’t look likely at this point. The backup-catcher competition remains between Allen and Heim. 

Second base

Franklin Barreto
Tony Kemp
Vimael Machin
Jorge Mateo

When Profar went to the San Diego Padres, the attention to take over at second base immediately went to Franklin Barreto. But his numbers last season weren’t a good characterization of what he can do.

Melvin says when Barreto is on point, he’s scary for an opposing lineup to face. It’s whether or not he’ll get there.

For now, it’s his job to win or lose. And if he’s solid, he could take it over by himself, but perhaps also with a lefty bat to platoon with.

Tony Kemp could be that lefty bat. And if his spring is any indication, then Kemp could tighten that spot up.

Last season with the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, Kemp had 52 hits in 245 at-bats. 

One of Oakland's main goals last season was to acquire a lefty bat. Kemp not only fulfilled that need, but his athleticism and range could create the perfect pair with Barreto to tackle that position.

Jorge Mateo made things interesting during his spring outing. He got plenty of chances playing in 12 Cactus League games. His speed could also be what puts him ahead of the race. Slight pun intended. He stole 24 bags with Triple-A Vegas last season.

Vimael Machin is intriguing for many reasons. He was able to take over for a resting Matt Chapman at third base, so there was time to watch him.

He’s vying for a spot on the 26-man roster. If he doesn’t get there, he will be offered back to the Cubs. 

His time watching Ben Zobrist will only help his chances, but it’s rather crowded there at the moment.

Then there is also Ryan Goins, 32, who has plenty of big-league experience. He also offers infield versatility, which helps his case but makes the A's decision more challenging.

[RELATED: A's had best record in Cactus League before spring cancelation]

Over seven seasons, Goins has averaged a .230/.279/.335 line.

There’s just one more factor here. Two words: Chad Pinder.

This guy will not only play any position, but he’ll play it well. Melvin told NBC Sports California during spring training that Pinder wouldn't be put at second base to start off, but could get more reps if the A’s believe the position needs to be shored up.

Oakland A's to stop paying minor leaguers' $400 weekly stipend in June

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Oakland A's to stop paying minor leaguers' $400 weekly stipend in June

The A's announced Tuesday that they will stop paying a weekly stipend to minor league players beginning in June.

With the minor league season on hold due to the global coronavirus pandemic, the A's had been paying all players on minor league contracts $400 a week.

A's owner John Fisher confirmed the news in a lengthy email to staff members and fans.

"I am very saddened to let you know that we have implemented a significant temporary furlough of staff positions, and reduced compensation for staff members who are not furloughed," Fisher wrote. "We are also suspending compensation for the A's minor league players."

Fisher explained why the A's decided to make this move.

"I know that many of you will wonder why the A's are cutting costs now," Fisher wrote. "Nobody knows how this pandemic will evolve over the long term. What is clear is that our revenues will be dramatically reduced this year. None of this diminishes the pain of today's actions, but it is an honest acknowledgement of the circumstances of the moment."

The Score's Robert Murray obtained a copy of the email A's general manager David Forst sent to minor leaguers.

"Recognizing the hardship that not receiving a paycheck would have on you and your families, the Oakland Athletics agreed to continue to pay all of its players on the Minor League [Uniform Player Contracts] the sum of $400 per week through May 31," Forst wrote. "In addition, as Commissioner [Rob] Manfred said, all players will continue to receive medical and health benefits pursuant to the terms of their Minor League health insurance at least until the beginning of a partial 2020 regular season (and if no season is played, through the original 2020 regular season calendar). Unfortunately, considering all of the circumstances affecting the organization at this time, we have decided not to continue your $400 weekly stipend beyond May 31. This was a difficult decision and it's one that comes at a time when a number of full-time employees are also finding themselves either furloughed or facing a reduction in salary for the remainder of the season. For all of this, I am sorry."

[RELATED: Why A's should re-sign Semien]

The A's are the first organization to halt payments to minor league players.

Why A's should sign Marcus Semien to long-term contract, break pattern

Why A's should sign Marcus Semien to long-term contract, break pattern

A's shortstop Marcus Semien avoided arbitration and agreed to play the 2020 season on a one-year, $13 million contract. Once that deal expires it’s off to the open market.

Free agency will be kind to a shortstop who does most everything well, even in a possibly depressed market, rewarding him with more than the A’s have ever guaranteed a player on one contract.

Eric Chavez’s six-year, $66 million deal, inked back in 2004, still holds that distinction. That last sentence seems surreal considering how salaries have risen and how much elite talent has coursed through the A’s organization. With rare exception, they’ve all gotten paid elsewhere.

The A’s have done just fine building rosters on the cheap. They have reinvented themselves time and again, including a recent run with five playoff appearances and four 94-plus win seasons in the last eight years. Who are we to second guess their preference to draft, develop and eventually deal?

They can counter such criticism in a single word: Scoreboard.

The time has come, however, to break protocol and lock Semien up before he hits the market.

Full freight won’t come cheap. Can’t imagine Semien hired top agent Joel Wolfe last summer to take hometown discounts. His premium position, awesome standard stats and advanced metrics suggest he’s getting a fat paycheck soon despite the fact he’ll enter the 2021 campaign at age 30.

Both player and team have expressed interest in a deal, per the San Francisco Chronicle, but it’s unknown whether the A’s would meet an asking price that could increase if he repeats or even approaches his 2019 performance.

I asked Semien about entering a contract year in February while covering A’s spring training, before baseball hit pause over the coronavirus pandemic, and the polished shortstop played it cool.

“Right now, all I know is that I have a contract I’m working under,” Semien said. “It is what it is. Until anything happens ... of course it’s human nature to think about what’s in your future but, for me, I don’t think it will impact the way I play.

"It just adds more excitement to what could happen next.”

Several stories project Semien’s worth on a long-term deal. Generally speaking, they compare players of similar performance and adjust those contracts for inflation. Mock contracts are about as accurate as NFL mock drafts, so let’s just estimate Semien could max out eight figures or hit the lower end of nine under normal circumstances. He might end up with a little less due to baseball's hiatus and uncertain 2020 prospects, but he should still be in line for a rich contract.

Will the A’s pay big for this particular player? They should, especially when evaluating Semien from all angles.

The move makes sense from a purely baseball perspective. Semien finished third in MVP voting last year, and while we won’t slog through every elite metric, his 8.9 WAR, per baseball-reference.com, should speak volumes. He played every game and led MLB with 747 plate appearances, which was no fluke.

Semien has missed three games in two seasons and has been productive over 1,450 times at bat in that span. He has played at least 155 games in four of the last five years, missing the mark just once with a wrist injury. We all know about his marked defensive improvement, which both enhances value and illustrates a tireless work ethic and devotion to his craft.

All that ironman stuff should inspire confidence in those writing checks, because they would be maximizing a considerable investment on a per-game basis. Semien doesn’t play every fifth day. He doesn’t take Sundays off after working hard Saturday night. His age shouldn’t cause particular panic that a moderate-length deal would lose value on the back end if he starts breaking down. To this point, there’s little to no evidence he will.

So, in a statement of the obvious, Semien is an excellent baseball player just now maximizing potential.

[RELATED: How Gregorius could fit A's in free agency if Semien leaves]

But this is about more than pure performance.

This also is about the slogan.

Rooted in Oakland.

The A’s latest rallying cry capitalizes on the Warriors moving to San Francisco and Raiders leaving for Las Vegas while the East Bay’s remaining professional team vows to stay and presses for a new ballpark.

Rooted in Oakland. The A’s shortstop is the perfect face of that marketing push.

Semien is East Bay born, East Bay raised and East Bay proud. He grew up in El Cerrito, went to Berkeley St. Mary’s High and then Cal. He has a permanent home in Alameda and uses Oakland Coliseum as his offseason batting cage.

He wants to live and work here. He wants to give a title to his home region and the team that helped him develop. He surely wants to open up a brand-new building.

Put Semien on a billboard off I-880, alongside to a Howard Terminal ballpark rendering. The man personifies what the A’s are trying to sell -- excellent play and a commitment to this area.

An argument could be made that superstars Matt Chapman or Matt Olson would have a similar effect, that fans care more about production than hometown sentiment, but why not have the best of both worlds? Why not use the contract to connect a homegrown star to the opening of a new venue with several hurdles left to clear before construction begins?

Signing Semien at some point before he becomes a free agent -- not now, obviously, with no games being played during a public health crisis -- would also signal a new way of conducting business once a ballpark’s built. If, of course, that is the A's intent.

And there’s surely a way to work a contract that leaves coin available as Olson and Chapman approach free agency in 2024. The A’s should also, in theory anyway, have completed or should be nearing completion of a new ballpark by then with new revenue streams allowing for a significant payroll increase.

Also, trust that it’s easier to spend other’s money and suggest altering a business model without having to account for its side effects. It’s still worthwhile to break protocol and make this statement signing.

Semien is a unique case, someone who would provide value to the baseball and business sides of the organization. It would be a mistake to trade a player like that for another round of prospects or, even worse, let him walk right out the front door.